Sarcasm is the use of irony (saying one thing while meaning another) or other rhetorical devices in a biting, hurtful way. There is a difference between sarcasm and satire, although they are related. Satire is the use of irony or ridicule to expose foolishness, but without the “bite” of sarcasm. Satire is gentler; sarcasm is more derisive and sneering.
The question is, is satire or sarcasm ever appropriate? This would be easy enough to resolve if not for the fact that God uses satire in several places in Scripture. For example, Paul’s words in this passage:
“You are already filled, you have already become rich, you have become kings without us; and indeed, I wish that you had become kings so that we also might reign with you. For, I think, God has exhibited us apostles last of all, as men condemned to death; because we have become a spectacle to the world, both to angels and to men. We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are prudent in Christ; we are weak, but you are strong; you are distinguished, but we are without honor. To this present hour we are both hungry and thirsty, and are poorly clothed, and are roughly treated, and are homeless; and we toil, working with our own hands; when we are reviled, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure; when we are slandered, we try to conciliate; we have become as the scum of the world, the dregs of all things, even until now.” (1 Corinthians 4:8-13)
Is Paul’s language ironic here? Absolutely. Was it hurtful? Intentionally so. Yet, because his intent was to lead the stubborn Corinthians to the truth, it can still be considered loving. In fact, Paul followed this passage with, “I do not write these things to shame you, but to admonish you as my beloved children” (1 Corinthians 4:14).
The Corinthians would not have considered Paul’s language intentionally cruel. Instead, they would have recognized Paul was using rhetoric to make a point. The Corinthians felt superior to Paul, casting judgment on him. So he calls them spiritual kings and says, ironically, that God considers His apostles “scum” and “dregs.”
The passage sounds sarcastic. It says one thing while meaning another in a way that makes the hearers look foolish. But Paul’s method was not meant as a personal insult. The goal was to grab the readers’ attention and correct a false way of thinking. In other words, Paul’s words are satirical, but not sarcastic. They are spoken in love to “beloved children.”
Other passages in the Bible that use satire include Isaiah’s ridicule of idol-makers (Isaiah 40:19-20), God’s taunting of Egypt (Jeremiah 46:11), and Elijah’s gibes directed at the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18:27). Jesus Himself used satire in the form of hyperbole when He told His hearers to “take the plank out of your own eye” (Matthew 7:5).
Therefore, we can say that irony is fine; irony is a figure of speech that can bring attention and clarity to a situation. Sometimes, irony can be painful because the truth it reveals is convicting. Satire, which uses irony to gently deride and prompt needful change, can be appropriate on occasion; we have examples of satire in Scripture.
Sarcasm, on the other hand, is not appropriate. Sarcasm has at its core the intent to insult or to be hurtful with no corresponding love or wish for well-being. Instead, the goal of sarcasm is to belittle the victim and elevate the speaker. Jesus warned against such harsh, unloving words in Matthew 5:22. Our words should be helpful and edifying, even if they are uncomfortable to the hearer.
We should speak the truth with loving intent (Ephesians 4:15), avoiding “foolish talk or coarse joking” (Ephesians 5:4). We should speak in such a way that the hearer will understand our motivation. And we should never be malicious or cruel. Carefully worded irony may be fitting, but malicious sarcasm is not.